How Denny’s Is Mastering Augmented Reality and What AR Means for the Future of Foodservice

By Mae Velasco, Associate Editor

When you slide into a booth at Denny’s, you can order up a hot plate of blackberry pancakes, a steak skewer and eggs skillet, and a side of...augmented reality?

Technology has been making its way to the dinner table and the use of augmented reality is no exception. Whether it was through restaurants tapping into the Pokémon Go craze that swept the nation at the end of 2016 with clever marketing, or big brands like Moe’s Southwest Grill and Burger King creating new experiences and games to engage with consumers on a whole other level, augmented reality is no longer a thing of science fiction — it could very well be an actual reality for the restaurant industry.

From “The Hobbit” to Today, Denny’s Delivers a Digitally New Dining Experience

Denny’s most recent foray into AR was part of their “Shrek the Halls” campaign during the holiday season, where they featured characters from the animated film on kids menus, and guests using the DreamWorks COLOR app could bring them to life.

“The characters literally jump off the menu in 3D! Guests can pose and take selfies with their characters, build and play in worlds they color and create,” Denny’s explained in a press release. “DreamWorks COLOR app encourages families to engage creatively with each other during mealtimes and provides a modern twist to a traditional diner activity.”

Beloved favorites from “The Penguins of Madagascar,” “Puss In Boots,” and “Turbo FAST” also adorned their menus in several other interactive games and themed puzzles. After guests scribble in the characters with crayons on their paper menus, they use the app to take their creations from two-dimensional to too-real.

This fast casual chain has come a long way from flipping pancakes to flipping the on-switch for AR. Augmented reality may be making its name now, but Denny’s actually first introduced this touch of tech in late 2013 as part of a special, limited-time menu inspired by the second film in “The Hobbit” series.

An example of Denny's AR-integrated menus. | Photo Courtesy of Denny's.

The AR-based interactive placemat they integrated into their dining experience allowed customers to access movie images, concept art, exclusive behind-the-scenes film content, and a sneak peek of the making of a Denny’s movie-themed TV spot.

“The use of AR through our menu inspired by ‘The Hobbit’ was one of my personal favorites because it offered exclusive content — only available when dining with Denny’s — related to the films in a fun and engaging way. We had an incredibly positive reaction from Hobbit fans,”   Denny’s Chief Marketing Officer John Dillon said, adding a nod to their close-work partners at DreamWorks Animation. “It’s always great to go into a restaurant and see kids and families interacting with the menu and the app, allowing them to see their favorite DreamWorks characters come to life inside of a Denny’s booth.”

And an increasing presence of AR seems to be the trend. Grand View Research, Inc. stated that the market worth of augmented reality would hit $100.24 billion by 2024, especially because we are in an era of continuously advancing hardware technologies and sophisticated mobile software.

This is what “good morning” looks like. Photo by professional breakfast-eater @roncabanlig

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If eating pancakes were a video game, Denny’s would be the huge bonus level at the end.

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Not to mention that with 68 percent of U.S. adults using smartphones in 2015, up 35 percent from 2011, brands are constantly seeking innovative ways to harness this power. Apps are the new norm. Augmented reality may be the next step, although only time will tell which brands won’t be afraid to run ahead and which ones will fall behind. How did Denny’s decide to take this leap of faith?

“...The idea to incorporate AR came through our strategy to offer guests something truly unique while inside our restaurants, something they would only find at Denny’s and therefore drive unique visits,” Dillon said. “The prior year, we had tremendous success working with Warner Brothers to engage our fans through QR codes on a menu specific to the first of ‘The Hobbit’ films, so we wanted to find a way to take that to the next level and provide our guests and fans of the film a truly authentic and unique dining journey through AR.”

Has Denny’s seen success since moving forward with this marketing tactic? If you consider a 170 percent increase in QR code scans related to the AR feature found on their kids menus over the course of 2016, then yes.

PIE V PIE. FIGHT!

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Seeing is believing. Luckily, the Invisible Woman Slam isn't actually invisible.

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Augmented Reality? More Like Actual Reality for Foodservice

Despite the growth Denny’s has witnessed in the last few years, most brands have yet to dip their toes into the deep ocean of augmented reality. Because it is still somewhat foreign, that is no surprise, but the rewards of its use are evident. How can companies interested in augmented reality get ready to swim?

“Although we’ve used AR in our menus for a few years now, for most people, AR is still a very new technology. And as is the case with many modern technologies, you can often have a major gap between people who are early adopters and will dive right in, learning along the way, and those who may be too intimidated by the technology. So as a marketer, I think it’s important to be strategic in how you incorporate features like AR into your marketing channels. The biggest challenge is simply avoiding doing something like AR just because you have the capabilities. Like everything else, it needs to have a specific purpose in your marketing strategy,” Dillon said.

Once a proper strategy is in place, there is a good chance that featuring augmented reality will bring in a boost in engagement. Between 60 to 70 percent of consumers see clear benefits in using AR in their daily life, indicating that the audience is open to using it when brands create the opportunity to do so.

“I think we’re getting to a point where features like AR are moving beyond being a gimmick and becoming a more viable tool for brands. In the restaurant industry, I think we are only beginning to scratch the surface of AR’s capabilities,” Dillon said. “For the most part, AR has been limited to an experience found inside of the restaurant, but I think there are opportunities for restaurant brands to leverage AR — and VR — outside of the restaurant.”